Words by Eleanor Verner
Images by Anna Magnowska
I found the first year of motherhood to be predominately a living hell. Half the problem was that I wasn’t expecting it. People don’t talk about how awful new-borns are when you get pregnant, they always say ‘congratulations!’ instead of ‘holy fuck!’
My all-natural, yoga-breathing, whale-singing, home birth ended after three days with an epidural, a tear through me bigger than most junk mail gets, and four pairs of hands up, what I used to consider, a dainty passage. The thing they finally brought out and laid upon my bare chest promptly shat a tar-like substance all over me. Such was the beauty of birth.
One of the biggest surprises, other than getting pissed, crapped and vomited on all at once, was breastfeeding. There’s nothing quite like coming down from painkillers whilst breastfeeding ‘advisors’ stand at the end of your hospital bed, gathered around your over-full piss-bag, squeezing a strangely mesmerising, knitted boob. I was too weak to tell them I didn’t need a fucking puppet show, I needed a whisky and a sturdy stick to bite down. It felt like red-hot needles were being thrust into my chest. I demanded to see various midwives, doctors and specialists - all said the latch was good and that it shouldn’t hurt.
The first night home I realised I couldn’t do it. I sent my husband to the supermarket to get formula and sterilising equipment. While he was gone, I was consumed by the sadness of my failure as my hungry baby screamed in my arms. We wept together, useless mother and hungry baby. I had to try, just one more time. I did - it was agony. And I kept trying, one agonising feed at a time. Finally, three weeks later I was breastfeeding my baby instead of enduring torture.
I spent the next three months wearing a clip-on feeding cushion twenty-four hours a day, in bed, on the loo, at the dinner table. This is because of another thing no one tells you about breastfeeding: For the first three months, they barely stop. This is confusing, because you’re told that they need to feed every two hours – so you imagine you have two hour breaks between feeds, to you know, get stuff done. That sounds reasonable, right? WRONG. The two hours begins at the latch on – a new-born can take a good hour and a half to finish both boobs. By the time you’ve had a wee and eaten a sandwich, it wants to be back on. In the end I stopped bothering to put the damn things away at all. I just sat there, my swollen tits catching dollops of mayonnaise from my sandwich.
The third thing no one tells you about breastfeeding is that the ‘let-down’ can be more powerful than a Chinese water-cannon. If you want to know what milk let-down looks like, Neptune’s fountain in Bologna is anatomically perfect - Google it. When my milk came in on day four (for the first few days they’re just sucking out orange stuff called colostrum), it was in the middle of the night as I’m changing a nappy filled with - literally - some weird shit.
All of a sudden, I get this hot, stinging sensation behind my nipples and milk starts jetting onto the changing mat like drunkard pissing against a door. Baby’s getting it in the face, he’s crying and sputtering. I’m coming to abrupt terms with the limited aiming capabilities of my nipples as I realise that I need a wee - this moment. And since my pelvic floor has absolutely nothing to say about it, I’m suddenly pissing on the floor. Keeping hold of squirming legs, I drop the wipes, grab the nappy bin and hold it in-between my legs just as the baby begins urinating too.
I watch as it arches up and hits me in the forehead, dripping into my eyes and mouth. I begin to cry and splutter also. At this moment, my husband flicks on the light. There we are, mother and child, frozen like the famous fountain, in a tableau of bodily functions. They say that motherhood changes you as a person; it changes your relationships, your priorities and your expectations, and in that moment I realised the extent of that truth; for the first time in my life, I was grateful just to have a pot to piss in.
This is the horror show you are taking with you whenever you step out of the house.
By the time I was ready to step out of my house, it was November. Breastfeeding was all over the news as Claridge’s committed a major gaff; asking a breastfeeding mother to ‘cover-up’ by draping a napkin over her baby’s head like a basket of bread rolls. A barrage of Farrage stupidity followed, as he suggested breastfeeding mothers should sit in corners - preferably on a one-legged stool with a conical hat reading ‘dunce’, as I imagine he spent most of his time at grammar school. Apparently breastfeeding in public is ‘fine’ so long as it’s ‘discreet’.
These ridiculous people have clearly never tried ‘breastfeeding discreetly’, or they would know it is an oxymoronic term. Babies sound like a clogged sink on the best of days, and on the worse ones, I’ve considered recording mine and selling it to sound designers to use in werewolf movies. If I tried to drape anything over him, he would yank it off and wave it about like a victory flag.
My first public feed was a busy Saturday lunch in Canterbury - I needed a sandwich. The only table available in the cafe was in the window - Fine! Let the whole city see me being a wonderfully natural mother. Lord knows it wasn’t easy to get to this point, I’m not going to let glances and whispers detract from my achievement. It’s just a boob after all - the town has a rich history of them, Chaucer never shut up about them.
So baby’s hungry, I unbutton my shirt, expose a nipple and attempt to attach the wriggling baby, who has suddenly decided that trying to grasp the teaspoon is infinitely more important than having a meal. While I’m poking him in the cheek with my nipple for several minutes, trying to get his attention, people pass the window with double-takes.
This irks me, because people should expect to see mothers with their breasts out in the same way one expects to see builders with their arse cracks out. Learn to avert thy gaze.
My sandwich arrives, at which moment he finally decides he needs milk more pressingly than cutlery and latches on. I stare at the sandwich longingly, knowing that any slight movement will immediately cause him to wrench off and stare up at me indignantly. Just as I feel the let-down, a waitress bangs a coffee cup - baby jumps, bangs his head on the table as he pulls off and starts screaming. We now have the attention of the entire restaurant. Milk sprays onto the cafe window and sandwich.
Boob still out, I try and soothe the livid baby and dab at window with napkin as a wet patch spreads down my shirt. Now, one cannot simply put ones boob away, leave money on the table and slink off. The baby is still screaming with hunger and I need that sandwich more than I need my dignity. Boob goes back in baby’s face and I sit in the stonily silent restaurant for the twenty minutes it takes him to polish off both sides (they do get quicker as they get bigger). I then button up my sodden shirt and eat my sodden sandwich and ask for the bill, which it seems, is already prepared.
Forget napkins, I needed a crime-scene tent to cover that lot up.
More from Eleanor Verner at www.eleanorverner.com